Waypoints: Then and now.

20 years of instrument flying

June 1, 2009

With 47 knots of headwind on the nose during a recent cross-country flight I had plenty of time to contemplate things learned as the twentieth anniversary of my instrument checkride approached. The checkride occurred on my birthday. I didn’t mention that to the examiner, but she noticed it afterward as she was typing up my temporary certificate. I knew when I scheduled the ride that it was going to be a memorable birthday one way or the other—either because I passed or because I failed. I passed, with her giving me a glowing compliment about my crosswind landing skills as we touched down on the last approach. Afterward I felt as if I were walking on air.

Later, I tiptoed into increasingly challenging instrument situations, marveling time after time that the runway actually appeared out the windshield when it was supposed to.

Today, following the magenta line on the multifunction display with satellite Nexrad overlaid with Stormscope data, metars in the box, terrain and obstacle warnings, fuel burn measured in tenths of a gallon, true airspeed, groundspeed, winds aloft, and WAAS approach procedures clearly shown on the display—all tied to a GPS steering system that transforms my minimalist autopilot into a miracle worker—I marvel at the information available and wonder how we did it back in the bad old days. Then, we had swinging needles instead of a magenta line, maybe a dedicated Stormscope display, and a Flight Watch frequency that only got busy when you needed it the most. In many cases, we didn’t know our groundspeed except through a whiz wheel or maybe a call to ATC, true airspeed was a guess, and fuel burn was an estimate based on previous experience.

Even without all the gear, we managed to get around. I don’t remember canceling a lot of flights because of weather, but certainly now the comfort factor is higher than before and I make some flights that in the past I wouldn’t have considered. Oftentimes the forecasts tend to be overly pessimistic. With the satellite weather I can know from afar what I’m going to face down the road, improving situational awareness and presenting new options.

On this recent flight from Frederick, Maryland, to Chicago, with three passengers on board, I knew that the forecast of reasonable ceilings and visibility was holding up, thanks to the onboard metars. However, I also knew, thanks to the fuel computer, that the 47-knot headwinds might mean an unplanned fuel stop. Instead of 3.5 hours of flying, the computer was showing 4.5 hours. Flying lean of peak and burning less than 13 gph, the box predicted we would land with about 12 gallons—well more than the required 45-minute reserve. Good VFR weather was predicted in Chicago and the metars supported that, so we plowed on. The air at 8,000 feet was smooth, but the headwinds were brutal. After crossing the Appalachians, I tried 6,000 feet. Still smooth and a few knots less headwind. A little farther west, we snuck down to 4,000 feet and eked out a few more knots of groundspeed with the only penalty a little light turbulence. At least down there with the ground closer it felt like we were moving faster.

After we landed at Chicago Executive Airport (I’m told the controllers don’t like it when you call it Palwaukee, as we geezers are wont to do), the line guys at Atlantic put 62.4 gallons of fuel on board. So 11.6 gallons left—not a bad projection by the fuel computer. Without the fuel computer, I most definitely would have made an intermediate fuel stop, not confident enough in my watch to cut it that close.

Tailwinds home, right?

Headed home 48 hours later, you’d think we would get at least somewhat of a tailwind going east, no? No. Instead, with a low pressure system over Kentucky and Tennessee spawning severe thunderstorms, we faced headwinds again for the first part of the trip east and rain all along the route. At various points along the route, the projected freezing level sloped from about 9,000 feet to 6,000 feet. Hoping for a bit of a push, we started out at 7,000 feet, only to face about 20 knots of headwind and light rain right after leaving the Chicago metro area. We spent the next 2.5 hours in smooth instrument conditions with gradually decreasing headwinds and ultimately a little tailwind as we passed north of the low. The Stormscope and Nexrad showed plenty of sparks and heavy rain to our south, but just green and yellow for us. Actually, most of the time when flying in the green areas we experienced no rain. Occasionally in the yellow areas moderate rain scoured the bugs off the leading edges and the windshield. The temperatures hovered just above freezing, but no ice. By the time we reached southeastern Ohio, temperatures reached 4 degrees Celsius. Visual conditions prevailed at home and we landed 3.5 hours after takeoff, shaving a full hour off the westbound trip.

The Nexrad overlaid with Stormscope data made the trip home much less stressful than it might have been back in my early instrument days. Especially when flying in stratus clouds where you can’t visually see what’s ahead, the possibility of embedded thunderstorms seems unnerving as you stare at the instruments and an occasional glance at the opaque windshield. With its broad forecast areas, flight service can sometimes mislead, projecting convective weather in areas where it might not end up. With graphical weather on the airplane, it’s easy to see what is happening and make course corrections early to avoid the worst of it.

As we fly with all of this gee-whiz gear, I often wonder how many accidents of the past might have been prevented if the pilots had the equipment available to them. One fatal accident here at Frederick is particularly telling. The pilot of a Piper Arrow 21 years ago was told to fly a full-procedure approach after being handed off from what was then Dulles Approach to Baltimore Approach. He was too low to be seen by the Baltimore controllers on radar, although the Dulles controllers could see him wander off to the north rather than following the procedure northeast bound before executing a right procedure turn back to the inbound. The pilot wandered around north and west of the airport near rising terrain for eight minutes before ultimately hitting a ridgeline and dying.

How different might his day have turned out if he had the full procedure laid out before him on a multifunction display? What if when he turned toward the ridges, a terrain warning system had popped up on the display and advised him to turn away from the hills?

On your next instrument flight, appreciate all of the tools now available to us. GPS, moving map, digital approach charts, datalink weather, terrain—and more, all literally in the palm of your hand if not also in your panel. Many who flew in the not-very-distant past could only imagine such capability and the safety and situational awareness that come with these tools.

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; twitter.com/tomhaines29.